Ari Armstrong's Web Log (Main) | Archives | Terms of Use

Self in Society Roundup 11

Objectivity, French on free speech online, Rand on capitalism, and more.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
January 2, 2023; ported here on May 31, 2024

Happy new year! I did not get caught up the last part of the year as I'd hoped. I still have 278 unopened emails, a ton of Twitter bookmarks, a messy desktop, a messy office, and a sprawling to-do list. I'm probably going to have to make some non-trivial changes to the ways I spend my time, in order to jump-start my book project and get other parts of my life in shape.

On the plus side, my son is doing well with homeschooling, my family has consistently logged 10,000 steps per day (plus I'm doing some weights), I've kept up with a weekly column, and I've managed to write a fair amount for my Substack platforms. I guess however much time you have, you could always spend more! So I'll try to focus on the positives.

Some notes . . .

More Nonsense about Objectivity

Here's what Fox reports:

Democratic Washington Gov. Jay Inslee held a recent equity summit that included a governor-appointed state education agency telling other state agencies that concepts like "objectivity" and "individualism" are rooted in "White supremacy culture" and should be rejected in favor of "indigenous relational pedagogy."

According to materials reproduced in the report, the summit described as "aspects of White Supremacy culture" things including either/or thinking, individualism, and objectivity. Opposed to individualism is the "collective (prioritized over the individual)."

Of course the report makes complete hash out of all of the relevant concepts.

Individualism means that each individual person has moral worth and equal legal standing under the law. Collectivism means that some individuals and their interests may be sacrificed for the alleged needs and desires of other individuals, who are taken to be more reflective or representative of "collective" values or will.

But according to the summit in question, individualism means things like "little experience or comfort working as part of a team." That's just idiotic. There's nothing about individualism that precludes working in a team, collaborating with others, working toward shared values, or anything like that.

Objectivity refers to the stance that something is the case regardless of what anyone happens to think or feel about it.

But according to the summit in question, objectivity means things like "the belief that emotions are inherently destructive, irrational, and should not play a role in decision-making or group process." Again, that's just complete bullshit. There's nothing about objectivity that precludes having, appreciating, and enjoying emotions. Objectivity does say that two plus two is four, even if someone happens to feel that it is instead five.

The main lesson we can take from the summit in question is that some American institutions are drowning in bullshit.

French on Free Speech Online

Here is David French's view:

Public institutions must comply with the First Amendment, and they should be sued if they don't. . . . Private universities have the freedom to craft their own rules, but if they promise free speech, they should deliver, and there is no better model for delivering free speech than the First Amendment.

French thinks platforms should moderate only with respect to the sort of speech that can legally be restricted elsewhere:

Consistent with viewpoint neutrality, a platform can impose restrictions that echo offline speech limitations. Defamation isn't protected speech. Neither is obscenity. Harassment is unlawful. Invasions of privacy (doxxing, for example) should face sanctions. Threats and incitement violate criminal law. A platform can say, "Children are present. No nudity."

Obviously French is partly right about minimum standards. But "obscenity" is notoriously ambiguous, and does he really think there's a problem with posting a photo, say, of Michelangelo's David?

As much as I sympathize with French's minimalist approach, I just don't think it works. For example, if someone routinely used the "n-word" to refer to all black people, but did not "harass" a particular person by calling them the "n-word," by French's guides that would be allowed. I think there's probably good reason for a media platform to ban such "hate speech." But this immediately gets us into all sorts of thorny issues with which we're all familiar. Is referring to a transgender woman as "he" hate speech?

I don't know what the right or best answer is to content moderation, but I don't think French has it.

Incidentally, French talks a lot about the problems of speech on "public" university campuses. My take is that all universities should be private. So generally I want government to be tightly bound by the First Amendment, and I'm okay with some experimentation and different approaches regarding speech by private institutions.

Rand on Capitalism

I am finally getting around to reading Shoshona Milgram's long essay (in a first and second part) on Ayn Rand's history with capitalism.

Interestingly, early on, Rand, still in the Soviet Union, was quite critical of the capitalists. In the context of film, she (probably) wrote, "But directors have an enemy. An omnipotent and indomitable enemy. An enemy whom it is difficult to fight—the firm's owner." The idea is that studio execs interfered with the artistic freedom of film creators.

Clearly there's something to this; execs sometimes demand pointless or damaging changes to a film. On the other hand, execs sometimes give free rein to directors. Sometimes the results are great, sometimes not so much.

Rand (eventually) defended capitalism, not all capitalists. In The Fountainhead, Rand depicts various wealthy people spending their money in stupid ways. At one point the architect Howard Roark turns down a commission because those paying for a building want him to dumb it down. It's interesting to see how certain of Rand's early anti-capitalist sentiments carried over to her capitalist phase.

Even in her notes leading up to The Fountainhead, Rand continued to write some fairly anti-capitalist lines. Example: "The Capitalistic world is low, unprincipled and corrupt. But how can it have any incentive toward principles when its teachings, its 'ideology,' has killed the source of all principles, the only source—man's 'I'?"

Here is Milgram's take: "The 'capitalist world,' at that time, meant to her not the economic system of the free market, but the conventional culture of 1930s America—and she found it empty of values."

In the 1930s and '40s, Milgram writes, Rand read and embraced explicitly pro-capitalist works in opposition to collectivism. Hence, whereas Rand always had championed individualism against collectivism, she started to see that capitalism and individualism are linked.

By 1941, though, Rand still sometimes sounded like a Smithian:

The basic economic principle of Capitalism is simple: a man makes money by giving people a product better and cheaper than that of his competitors. Thus a man's private good becomes a public good at the same time. By working for his own profit, a man benefits all of society. By pursuing his own happiness, he helps toward the happiness of others. And this is done without violence, without compulsion.

Here is something I hadn't realized (Milgram): "Yet even in Atlas Shrugged, she did not feature the term 'capitalist,' limiting its use to an insult aimed at a positive character." After that, though, Rand was unmistakably pro-capitalist in the laissez-faire sense.

Quick Takes

Libertarianism: Reason interviewed Andrew Koppelman about his critique of libertarianism. Koppelman opposes the "extreme anti-statism" and "crippling of state capacity" of anarchist and "minarchist" strains of libertarianism. Clearly Koppelman sees a large role for government in providing certain "public goods"; he mentions the government's response to Covid and firehouses as examples. Very interesting.

Social Media: Jonathan Haidt remains very worried about the psychological state of Gen Z, and especially about the effects of social media on girls. I would like to know, though, why youth suicides were high into the mid-1990s, then fell before climbing again.

Education: Robert Tracinski writes, For libertarians, "parental control over education means giving parents freedom to choose among different schools and approaches to education. For the conservatives, it means church ladies trying to take over school boards so that some parents can have more control over what other people's kids are taught."

Inequality: Claims of out-of-control income inequality in the United States are much exaggerated; Arnold Kling has the links.

Film: On Timothy Sandefur's recommendation, I watched the Amazon film Brittany Runs a Marathon. It's a very good and interesting film. Basically it's a love story, in which the lead character learns to love herself. The second part of the film drops into some much richer themes than I initially expected.

Ari Armstrong's Web Log (Main) | Archives | Terms of Use